aiki’s wounds were far from superficial, but neither were they life-threatening. Bun’en and his kirin doctors diligently attended to him. While they cared for his injured arms, he was able to resume a mostly normal life.
During that time, Taki repeatedly sought audiences with Seirai, Ganchou, and Rousan. As far as Seirai was concern, it was made clear that a meeting with him was out of the question due to his serious crimes. As for Ganchou and Rousan, they reportedly declined to see him.
“I heard the Ganchou-sama is holed up in a little house somewhere.”
Juntatsu came up with that tidbit. He was one of the doctors Bun’en sent over to assist Tokuyuu.
“I doubt he actually refused the meeting. More like he was never informed about it in the first place. I wonder if he’s even aware the Taiho has returned. I’m sure he would be delighted
Juntatsu wasn’t the only new addition. Shouwa commanded a small army of maids and manservants to see to Taiki’s every need. Kouryou was not happy with the sudden surge of personnel, but Heichuu and Shouwa could no longer manage all of the household duties by themselves. The servants didn’t come into close contact with Taiki so Kouryou relented to the staffing increases.
For the time being, though Taiki lacked for nothing in his personal life, the current state of affairs was far from satisfactory. He was nowhere close to restoring his status as Zui province lord.
The weather grew colder day by day. For whatever reason, the first snowfalls of the season came late this year, though early snow reports still trickled in from around the kingdom. They had to find ways to help the people of Tai survive the winter, and the sooner the better.
“Snow has already started falling in the north. The people there are going to need the assistance of the kingdom.” Taiki summoned Keitou to inform him of his intentions in this regard. Keitou never brought back a satisfactory answer.
“At the very least, we should start implementing a practical administrative agenda for Zui Province.”
Over and again, Taiki sent word through Keitou to the provincial administrators asking to meet with them, but Chou’un and the rest of them simply prevaricated and did nothing.
He gathered from his conversations with Tokuyuu and the doctors that Chou’un had named Shison, the provincial prime minister, to serve as interim governor of Zui Province. Though in that capacity, Shison was little more than a puppet. Chou’un was the one who actually ran the province. Taiki sought a sit-down with Shison too, another meeting that never happened.
Taiki was, by all rights, province lord of Zui. His return to Tai having been condoned by Asen himself, there could be no objection to the restoration of his title. Shison should answer to him as his subordinate. And yet Taiki’s requests for a meeting were met with firm though gracious refusals.
“What nonsense is this!” Kouryou raged.
Keitou only mumbled apologies and bowed his head repeatedly.
“When I politely ask him to come and see me,” Taiki declared, “that should be considered a direct order from the province lord!”
Except Shison never showed up. He claimed that as a retainer of the province lord, it was his duty to abstain from doing anything that might possibly cause any harm to a superior. Taiki’s first priority, after all, should be the restoration of his health.
Such excuses annoyed Taiki to no end. He instructed Keitou, “Perhaps he refuses to meet because has an issue with me personally. Tell him that if he cannot accept my authority as province lord, then I am perfectly willing to accept his resignation.”
In response, Shison hurried over in a small panic. He was a scrawny man who peered at people with upturned eyes.
As soon as he entered the main hall, he cried out, “Taiho!” As if overcome with emotion, he scurried over and made a great show of kowtowing before him. “It is such a blessing to lay my humble eyes on you again. I cannot express my delight knowing that you have once again returned to us safe and sound!”
Hardly allowing Taiki a word in edgewise, he babbled on with his felicitations, proclaiming how terribly sad they had all been during his long absence, how distressed they were about Taiki’s condition, how they all cried aloud with joy when he came back to them, and etcetera and etcetera.
Looking on from the side, Kouryou found no opportunity to break into the one-sided conversation.
Having had his fill of this self-serving melodrama, Keitou interrupted in a severe tone of voice. “More importantly, have you no explanations for why you failed to respond to his repeated summons?”
“Oh my goodness! I profusely apologize if I have displeased the Taiho in any possible way. I must confess that my extraordinary concern for the Taiho’s health and well-being led me to humbly conclude that I should not trouble a person of such unqualified importance with my trifling and unsightly presence.”
He bobbed his head up and down as he spoke, as pounding on the floor with his forehead.
“I have always acted with complete devotion to your high office. Alas, my clumsy and frivolous efforts have betrayed those intentions. And now, at this late hour, I find myself abashed at the meagerness of my efforts. There surely could be no higher honor and no greater joy than striving on behalf of the esteemed Taiho. However foolish and inept I may be, I hope to serve you to the utmost in whatever manner you shall see fit.”
Listening to Shison’s performance, as superficial as it was grandiose, Kouryou couldn’t keep a sardonic smile from his face. Taiki, however, showed not a flicker of emotion.
“If you do indeed harbor such intense emotions, then please demonstrate those feelings with your actions,” Taiki said with icy composure. “First of all, I wish to meet the Provincial Rikkan. I must know what the government of Zui Province has been up to these past six years. Tell them to make ready all the relevant reports and materials at once.”
“Ah!” said Shison, raising a flustered objection. “No, no, no. Please wait. No, well, of course, I cannot refuse any request from the Taiho. But compared to your august personage, we are but lowly souls who shrink from inviting ourselves into your exalted presence. However presumptuous it may be of me, if you do have any other inquiries—”
“Prepare those records and make them available to me. That is an order.”
“As you know, preparing documents worthy of the Taiho’s attention will us incompetent civil servants a considerable time—”
“Get it done in five days. I do not care if that is not enough time.”
“No, but—” Shison shook his head back and forth. “Given so little time—I would not begin to presume—that is so very very—” Mumbling to himself in confusion and dismay, he clasped his hands together in front of his chest. “More importantly, if we fail to attend to His Highness’s instructions—” He continued with a big bow, “We owe our good offices to Asen-sama. Should we presume to act outside of any directive from Asen-sama, we would undoubtedly be upbraided as a result.”
He prostrated himself on the ground and trembled with fear. “We should be happy if such discipline should end with only a reprimand.”
The dark implications were that acting counter to Asen’s will could end with them being dismissed from their positions. Or worse.
“Naturally, should such an order come from the Taiho, we are prepared to lay down our lives. But—”
The cowardice on display made Kouryou sick to his stomach. Nobody could touch Asen. He’d heard that not even Chou’un ever talked to or directly petitioned Asen. Taiki couldn’t hope to fare any better. There was no way to get close to Asen in the first place. And yet the justification that “Asen said so” was met only with silence.
Unmoved, Taiki rose smoothly to his feet. “Well, then. We shall proceed as stated. I will meet with the ministers of the Rikkan in five days.”
“Eh?” Kowtowing on the floor, Shison looked up at Taiki, the stark surprise evident on his face.
“Should Asen-sama discipline you in any way, I promise to intervene on your behalf
“Were you lying when you claimed you were prepared lay down your lives?”
“No, no, no.” The flustered Shison again shook his head
Taiki shot him a final glance as he strode toward the bedroom. But halfway there, he let out a slight gasp and stopped in his tracks. For a moment, he swayed back. Then his head slumped forward and he collapsed to his knees.
“Taiho!” Kouryou ran over to him. “Are you all right?”
His hands planted on the floor, Taiki’s shoulders heaved. Eyes wide, as if equally surprised at what his body was doing, he focused on a single point on the floor. Alerted by the commotion, Tokuyuu ran in from the adjoining room, just as Keitou rushed to his side, all of them calling out to Taiki.
Behind them, Shison added his own voice. “Of course, the Taiho needs his rest. So as not to obstruct the Taiho’s rest and recuperation any further, I shall withdraw for now. Please excuse me.”
Rattling off the words and not waiting for an answer, Shison made a beeline out of the room. Keitou turned to address him but he had already scampered away. Keitou noted with no little irritation that Shison managed to flee the scene before extracting any promises from him.
In any case, Taiki’s condition took precedence. Tokuyuu offered him his hand and urged him to the bedroom, but Taiki refused.
“I got a little lightheaded when I stood up. That’s all.” And, indeed, the color had returned to his cheeks. “Bad timing. I see Shison made good his escape.”
“Yes,” said Keitou. “I will be sure to remind Shison of his commitments regarding the Taiho. But for now, you absolutely must not overexert yourself.
“That is not something I can afford to do. The weather grows colder day by day.”
Keitou clasped his handed together and bowed deeply. He had promised Taiki he would get the job done. Unfortunately, any meeting with the provincial ministers would come about only at the conclusion of the ongoing verbal tug-of-war that followed, with Shison bringing up the “Taiho’s health” at every opportunity.
If they cared about the Taiho’s health, Keitou reprimanded them in turn, they would stop giving him reasons to worry. When he was finally able to assemble a quorum of the Rikkan, the participants all turned out to be more of Shison’s fellow sycophants or minor bureaucrats only there because of Chou’un’s patronage. Taiki first ordered that they speed aide to the refugees. And though they prostrated themselves while proclaiming that “Your wish is our command,” no wheels began to turn
When Taiki pointed out that no progress was being made, the blame was laid on instructions from His Highness or the Chousai. They hemmed and hawed while using every possible pretext to avoid taking responsibility. The whole thing turned into a sickening swamp of procrastination and prevarication.
Asen had “allowed” Taiki to return while allowing him no actual authority. Taiki remained in the dark about Ganchou and Seirai. Rousan hadn’t agreed to see him either. At some point, a company of soldiers cordoned off Nightingale Villa. Only Keitou and Bun’en had unfettered access to the villa. No one else could freely come or go. When Taiki protested, he was told it was being done with his own safety in mind. He couldn’t leave the villa for the same reason. There were too few guards assigned to his personal detail.
“At this point, we are little more than prisoners in prettier cage,” Kouryou fumed to Keitou. Except that venting his anger on Keitou accomplished nothing.
Though Keitou had been given the authority to deal with all matters regarding Taiki, none of his inquiries received satisfactory answers from anyone. They were simply told to make do with what they had on hand. Nothing moved forward. Nothing changed from before. All they had done was relocate to a more spacious jail.
The lack of progress was vexing in the extreme. Under the equivalent of house arrest, they couldn’t leave the villa. They had no evidence of Gyousou being held anywhere on the palace grounds. They couldn’t approach Asen, and he showed not the slightest inclination to act in any case. The one thing Taiki could do was come to the aid of Zui Province, except that was impossible with Shison blocking the way.
The entire premise of Taiki’s plan was that officially naming Asen the new emperor would give his camp the necessary impetus to start implementing the policies of his administration. Except that from Kouryou’s perspective, the whole plan had faltered from the first step. Not only Asen, but Chou’un as well, showed not the slightest inclination to implement anything.
He didn’t understand why, just as he had no idea how to kick things into motion
Perhaps, just perhaps—
Kouryou thought the possibility impossible, but perhaps Asen had seen through the charade from the start. And this quiet confinement was the result.
Day by day, Taiki grew more melancholy, often barely saying a word, staring up at the sky in prolonged bouts of silence. Before long, more days than not saw the skies over the Imperial Palace blanketed in dark gray clouds.
The full force of winter would soon be upon them.